The Rose Theatre, London: The State of Knowledge and What We Still Need to Know

Article excerpt

"Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did afright the air at Agincourt?" Henry V, prologue


The site of The Rose playhouse, first uncovered fifteen years ago, has become an extraordinary crossroads. It is now a meeting-place for actors, architects, theatre designers and historians of early theatre, a multitude of enthusiasts for Shakespeare and Marlowe, and of course the archaeologists who recorded the remains for the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS), Julian Bowsher and Simon Blatherwick. Key designers of the replica of the neighbouring Globe theatre, namely the architect, Jon Greenfield and Peter McCurdy, the master carpenter, and historians such as John Orrell and Andrew Gurr have converged on the archaeologists and their evidence in the hope of learning more about the theatre where almost all of Marlowe's and at least two of Shakespeare's plays were staged (1 Henry VI and Titus Andronicus), and possibly where Shakespeare himself acted.

We present here a summary of what we have gleaned from a study of the MoLAS records of the 1989 dig, which have become available in the last two years. The new deductions mark out The Rose as a site that deserves to be celebrated as more than just the third of London's Elizabethan playhouses; it contained features which throw light on the development of theatre-building during one of the greatest periods of play-writing the world has known.

The Rose in documents

First constructed in 1587 by a new entrepreneur, Philip Henslowe, ten years after the first two of London's open-air theatres were built, The Rose was enlarged five years later, and two years after that in 1594 it became one of the only two theatres to be officially licensed for use in London. The other, the Theatre in Shoreditch, was pulled down in 1599 and reconstructed as The Globe only fifty yards from The Rose. The two sites in Southwark's Park Street are the only fragments so far to be uncovered of the playhouses that Shakespeare and Marlowe used. That gives the archaeological sites their unique status, though it does not say much for London's historical priorities that we have been able to do so little up to now towards a thorough analysis of what they have to tell us about Shakespeare's workplaces.

The Rose is central to the study of Elizabethan play-going not only because all the foundations have survived, but because it features prominently in the Henslowe papers, housed in Dulwich College. They are a unique day-by-day record of what plays were staged at The Rose and what money they brought in between 1592 and 1597, together with inventories of the costumes and properties The Rose actors used. There are also some accounts about rebuilding work in 1592 and 1595. But these documents tell us very little about the first five years of the playhouse from 1587.

Up to 1989, when the remains were first uncovered and partly analysed, the only information about the shape of The Rose was a pair of sketches published on the same engraving in 1600 by John Norden, a Londoner. He drew a panorama of London from the tower of Southwark Cathedral (as Wenceslas Hollar later and more famously did for his 'Long View' of London). Norden's main design (Figure 1) showed the playhouse as six-sided, but an inset drawing (Figure 2) made it round and called it not the Rose but The "Stare", presumably the result of a mistake from thinking the Tudor rose on its flag was a star. Norden was mistaken about the six sides too, since the theatre's footprint dug out in 1989 showed it had fourteen.


If the documents are unspecific about the early form of The Rose, there are nevertheless other references which will prove useful in the interpretation of the archaeological remains. Philip Henslowe, the Rose's financier, was famous for many theatre-related and profitable activities over the years. …